Marte primed for resurgent '24 after winter ball stint

February 18th, 2024

PORT ST. LUCIE, Fla. -- Initially when Mets officials asked him if he wanted to play winter ball this offseason, declined. But as his recovery from groin discomfort progressed, Marte grew stronger, more confident. Eventually, he felt sprightly enough to reconsider appearing in the Dominican Winter League for the first time in six years.

All told, Marte appeared in 11 postseason games for Leones del Escogido in his Santo Domingo hometown, reached base at a .388 clip and even stole two bases. At one point, Mets president of baseball operations David Stearns and manager Carlos Mendoza traveled to the island to watch Marte in person.

“I showed them and everybody that I don’t have to worry about my legs,” Marte said.

The rationality of that optimism may not be clear for months, but after reporting to Mets camp this weekend, Marte painted an unquestionably rosy portrait of his physical condition. After missing the final eight weeks of last season due to groin issues stemming from a Nov. 2022 surgery on both sides of that muscle, Marte -- now 35 years old -- says he is fully healthy and preparing to be the Mets’ everyday right fielder.

“I don’t have to prove anything,” he said. “Just play my game, and then focus on what I want to do, be ready for every day, and have fun.”

At his best, Marte remains a game-changing talent, a player who has made two All-Star Games, won a pair of Gold Gloves, and -- as recently as 2021 -- led the Majors in stolen bases. He ranks among baseball’s fastest players, possesses one of the league’s strongest arms and is powerful enough that he’s twice hit 20 homers in a season. Mets reliever Jake Diekman, who played with Marte in Oakland in 2021, called him “superhuman.”

“He’s the man,” Diekman said.

But the same body that’s made Marte such an asset has also routinely broken. Over a 12-year career, Marte has played a full, healthy season just once, and that was back in 2015. He’s been on the injured list 10 times in 12 years, including twice last summer: once for a bout of migraines that has since improved and no longer requires medication to manage, and once for his groin.

The latter issue is the trickier of the two. After feeling pain in his groin late in 2022, Marte underwent surgery to repair a group of tendons that had separated from his muscles. When he reported to Spring Training last year, he eased into activities but made the Opening Day roster without issue. By May, as Marte plodded through one of the worst stretches of his career, Mets officials began dropping hints that he might not have ever fully recovered. In early August, Marte returned to the IL, saw a series of specialists and openly discussed his concern that he might need another operation.

Then the season ended, Marte began feeling better, and he eventually surfaced in winter ball. Asked what he learned from that experience, Marte replied: “I know I’m good. That’s what I learned.”

The Mets, who have Marte under guaranteed contract for another two seasons and $41.5 million, will take precautions to make sure he stays that way. Although Mendoza fully intends on having Marte serve as his regular right fielder, he’s open to the idea of suggesting -- and perhaps even unilaterally imposing -- rest or DH days to maintain the veteran’s health.

“Listen, they all want to be in the lineup. They all want to play,” Mendoza said. “But as a manager, there’s going to be times where we’re playing the long game here. I think it’s important, especially with a guy like this. We know how important he is, and we’ve got to keep him healthy.”

Should Marte falter, the Mets have coverage with backups Tyrone Taylor and DJ Stewart, but neither offers the same type of overall package. In that sense, Marte is one of the Mets’ most important players, capable of pushing their ceiling higher for as long as he can stay on the field.

“If he does that,” Mendoza said, “we’re going to be in pretty good shape.”